Community Media Discussion Impact of the Media Bill on Community Radio Summary

The Media Bill has been introduced to the United Kingdom Parliament, and will be discussed by MPs over the coming months. The all-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee will be scrutinising the proposed legislation, with submissions due before the 14th May. I hosted an open online discussion to bring people who support and work around community radio, to establish what is known about the bill, what their reaction to its main points are, and how we might go about lobbying for changes to the bill with our separate organisations and representative groups.

On Tuesday 18th April I hosted an online discussion via Zoom, where anyone who is interested in how the Bill might impact on community radio couple come and share their concerns in an open discussion. I started by giving a brief summary of the Bill’s main themes, taken from the guidance notes that have been published with the legislation documents. I’ve published a previous blog post where I’ve noted some of the main issues that the bill is expected to deal with, which includes:

  • The restatement of support for the principle of public service broadcasting.
  • The introduction of a code of practice for video-on-demand content.
  • Protection and prominence for public service providers in electronic programme and on smart speakers guides, so audiences can continue to find stations and services.
  • The introduction of on-demand licencing for AM and FM services if Ofcom deems this necessary.

In other ways, the bill is more concerning, and I explained to the forum that the bill would revise a number of established safeguards that protect the diversity of supply of services, and ensure that there is an accessible and pluralistic approach to platform and supply regulations. This includes:

  • Reducing the regulatory burdens on commercial radio, which are seen by DCMS as burdensome as more people access digital platforms.
  • The shifting of local radio news and information provision away from integrated local programme and service production to separate and compartmentalised news and information provision.
  • A reinforcement of the link between analogue providers who are simulcasting services on DAB, so national commercial operators continue to dominate local radio service provision.
  • The provision for financial assistance and public subsidy for Public Service Content that can be given to commercial operators.
  • The ending of universal broadcasting principles, by reducing the commitment for service providers to include all content on-air. It will be enough for public service content to only be made available online in the future.
  • A reduction in the commitment to minimum levels of content production, which will be replaced simply with a requirement of ‘making content available’.
  • Ofcom will no longer be required to provide for the diversity of national analogue services, which may open-up provision, though only after Ofcom has been assured that any potential provider has committed to digital services where possible.
  • The requirement for a digital switch-off is not included explicitly, but points new entrants towards digital provision first, regardless of the coverage, suitability and the cost.
  • Commercial programme makers will be able to change the nature of the services with no recourse to Ofcom or consultation with the public.
  • With local multiplexes on one service will be required to provide news and information services that are relevant to the locality.

I explained that my initial concern is that the Bill will undermine media plurality, and will consolidate power in the hands of a few integrated networked providers who will be able to change and consolidate their licences without having to consult Ofcom or the public. I explained that the pressure to push all services where possible to DAB does not account for the limitations of this platform for small and independent providers, and has not anticipated future forms of digital broadcasting, such as IP-based services.

As I stated:

“The problem I have with this Bill, is that for me, it reads like a massive grab by the commercial radio sector to get what they want almost entirely. And it pushes aside any other interests. Minority interests or local interests. One of the things you’ve got to bear in mind is that local is defined as anything that isn’t national or regional. If it is not national or regional, then it must be local. It’s not a bottom-up approach to what local media content is or what radio content is. Then there is the provision for digital switchover, which effectively means that commercial radio stations can have licenses in perpetuity, and they may never be subjected to any kind of recommissioning.”

We then opened the conversation to contributions from the attendees:

Martin Steers from the UK Community Radio Network suggested that attention should be given in the legislation to freeing-up spectrum and freeing-up FM for more community services, hyperlocal services and small commercial services. Martin suggested this is the best way to get pirates to move to regulated FM. UKCRN, Martin explained, wants to see a move away from any discussion of ‘switch off’ and instead into provision for ‘migration’ where services that are viable on DAB are removed from FM and AM, but the released spectrum is available to those who want to use it. Martin indicated that he has concerns about Small-Scale DAB because there has been no impact and coverage assessments undertaken to test the viability of these new services. This means there can be no road map, Martin suggested, that would satisfy all current community radio licensees. Martin said he is concerned that there is no mention of community radio in the legislation, and that this is being left for a follow-up set of orders that are yet to be consulted on.

Sam Hunt spoke, representing a number of AM service providers through his work with Maxxwave Ltd, an independent transmission provider. Sam explained that a number of services who presently broadcast on AM would like to come off the services given the cost increases that they are facing to maintain them, and the significant rise in the cost of electricity. Sam said that he understands that no service provider should be forced to pay excessive fees for power to maintain declining platforms in place. However, Sam also noted the smaller scale providers are willing to maintain their AM services because they give wider coverage at a fraction of the cost of digital alternatives. Sam indicated that in his experience, AM is a viable and scalable broadcast solutions still, and that it would be premature to force services onto digital platforms. Sam suggested that Ofcom should be free to make assessments based on the demand they perceive to be available in the market, but without any expectation that there will be a forced digital switchover, unnecessarily limiting the expectations of radio set suppliers and audiences.

Tony Jones from Môn FM explained that he represents a community radio station in Wales, and that the intense requirement of fundraising to support and sustain their FM services has taken some time and considerable effort, and that he expects the FM transmitters that they have recently commissioned to be in service for some time, and that there is little demand in their area for local DAB services. Tony explained that to give the same coverage, a SSDAB network would have to use six or seven relay transmitters, which would be unaffordable for such a small area. Tony indicated that in making representation to the Welsh government, he argued against duplication of services on both analogue and digital platforms, and for clarity of expectation that community services cannot be commercialized because this would change the essential characteristics of these services. The principles of Môn FM are not about making money, but about giving back to the community that they serve, and that the proposal in the Bill would undermine their ability to do this.

Peter Degnan from Leicester Community Radio explained that over the considerable period of time that LCR has been around, it has struggled to get a licence that would properly serve the community that the station aims to service. Peter explained that while LCR has been able to go onto the new local SSDAB multiplex, the service provided by the multiplex does not sufficiently guarantee that listeners like himself can receive the service that he volunteers with, as he is located outside the city centre, and in housing that DAB radio signals do not easily penetrate. Peter explained that LCR has engaged in considerable correspondence with Ofcom, but the exceptional case that they have presented to the regulator, has not been accepted, which means that LCR has to accept a suboptimal broadcast solution that does not service its key audience.

Lucinda Guy is the creative director of Soundart Radio and Skylark Radio, and she explained how the service provided by Skylark does not follow a conventional broadcasting approach, but instead seeks to use the environment of Dartmoor as a studio, with interactive content captured and shared using a generative platform which never repeats content. Lucinda explained that the challenge of winning a licence was to convince Ofcom that an algorithm is a legitimate way to ensure that content is unique, and that the sounds of all living creatures in the Dartmoor national park is suited to the cultural aims of the station. Lucinda explained that Skylark is designed to incorporate the characteristics of analogue broadcasting, and that there is no online stream of the service. Visitors have to pick up the service when they are in the area, and because of the variations of signal propagation, the service can occasionally be picked up in places like Finland. None of this would be possible if this was a digital service. Lucinda explained that a core principle of community radio is ownership over the platform and the means of broadcasting, and that the additional layers of administration and management that SSDAB requires are counter to the principles of community intent. As Lucinda stated:

“I think because the Skylark project comes from its intent, of as many people as possible having a voice on it, and that it’s an automated and generated sound piece, is unique. All the clips are made by everybody in the community, and the goal is to have as many people involved as possible. So, it shows how analogue radio might go, and what its role could be outside of the commercial styles. We deliberately don’t stream Skylark online. You must be in the area to pick it up on the radio. These debates about digital and analogue are just funny. They are like saying that MP3 must replace vinyl, so you may as well dump all your records. Then, of course, a few years later everybody’s buying vinyl. DAB and FM are as different as MP3 and vinyl, completely different technologies. We know from the whole history of the media that one technology doesn’t replace another; they just find their niche. Books have not been replaced by PDFs. So, it’s total nonsense to say that you replace analogue with digital. I think that if they force the switch off of analogue licenses, there will be a huge resurgence in pirate radio because everyone will still have their transmitters. What are we going to do with them?”

Martin added that in his discussions with Ofcom, there is little accountability with SSDAB for access, and that some early adopters have viewed the multiplexes as a ‘license-to-print’ money, and that some operators of the SSDAB multiplexes don’t much care if the coverage is substandard and misses areas that would be expected in a town. The lack of meaningful community ownership, Martin explained, has meant that there isn’t the guarantee that all parts of a community are services. Martin suggested that case studies need to be gathered to challenge perceptions about SSDAB because it is not the “silver bullet” that was promised by DCMS.

Tony added that in his discussions with representatives from Ofcom, SSDAB was being sold on the basis that it expands choice in the market, and that it would be possible for consumers to access ‘multinational meals’ on a radio menu that would never be available in a rural area. Tony suggested that the limited capacity of local providers to technically support DAB broadcasting would be a significant factor in putting off local groups from bidding to run a multiplex. Tony was concerned that the additional services made available, however, would simply dilute a small audience who would have more choice between channels, but would be less satisfied with any of them. As Tony stated:

“If you slice salami, slice the radio spectrum into a gazillion stations, what sort of quality would you have, and what sort of strengths have you got in numbers to train, to develop, to set standards and instigate policies? Why would you try to run a community station in these circumstances?”

Jessica Memon from Roq Raw Radio described how she was new to running an independent community radio station, and that now that she has completed her application for a C-DSP licence, it was much more difficult to work collaboratively with other service providers than she had anticipated, and that had she been able to apply for an analogue licence, this might have been a more suitable option for her needs in her area. What Jessica said she wants to do is to focus on the needs of her community, and the structure of SSDAB means that she is taken away from doing this work. She reflected that she could easily provide a minimal information service in between songs, but her expectation was that community radio would need to provide more than this, and there needs to be a stronger ‘community fee’’ in the service she and others like her offer.

Dr Josephine Coleman from Brunel University stated that she is concerned about the provision for local news service in the Bill, and the lack of support for community radio as a provider of news and information. With the cuts that the BBC is making, and it’s Digital First policy, Josephine stated that her expectation was that the relevance of local news would be further diminished. As has been seen in the print news media, their reporting has been reduced to trawling social media, using press releases and clicktivism. As Josephine stated:

“I think there are opportunities for the community sector to actually be providing local services. Genuinely local services. And I hope that when we see the Bill for the community sector later that there will be provision to encourage or require local hubs. I’m a big believer in having local places where people can go and commune. It is part of the community radio experience. During COVID community radio proved that when we didn’t have to have an operational station, we could do everything in our bedroom, and send it online, it wasn’t the same. I do think the whole experience of community radio and community media is better if you’ve got a meeting place for people.”

Josephine went on to ask, “if there’s any provision in this draft bill where we can get money from the commercial sector as a levy that can be returned to the local areas they are leaving”. What’s needed, Josephine added, is “more funding for all the community media providers who are struggling to make ends meet to provide a genuinely local service, which is more easily available and easier to apply for, and not to be shared with commercial entities.”

Peter reiterated the point that these changes are being proposed and made with very little consultation with the public, and very little understanding of the impact that they will have on local information provision and media services. Tony reported that his experience with public consultation for the building of nuclear power stations in North Wales was extensive in scope and well-funded, and yet, when it comes to consultation with the public and other agencies, such as local and national governments, there is little evidence of engagement. Peter reminded the meeting that community radio during the pandemic was one of the few forms of media that maintained services that other people couldn’t, often without public subsidies and direct support. Tony stated:

“I think there’s a role for us all to collaborate and knock the drum with the politicians and say to Ofcom that community radio should be a very well respected and protected service. More money should be given to promote a sense of community benefit, like if you get a developer moving into an area, and they give certain amounts to improve the communities’ resources. of that. If we’re trying to do good and give back to the community, we should be seen in that capacity and not treated like somebody’s trying to steal the commercial viability of commercial stations”.

My primary concerns, after this conversation, is that the Bill represents an anticompetitive land grab by the established radio incumbents, who will be expecting public subsidies what gaining almost complete free market autonomy. I’m coming to the view that there will be less protection for local media if this bill goes through unchanged, and we’ll see multiple overlapping radio services aimed exclusively at profitable parts of the market, and few providing locally produced and relevant content. In return for this freedom, it’s my belief that the networks should be forced to competitively reapply for any FM and AM licences, with an on-demand licencing system put in place by Ofcom, giving preference to local and independent commercial and community services on the analogue spectrum, with no compulsion to opt for digital services at all. 

At the end of the discussion, I thanked everyone for attending, and I encouraged each person to speak with their representative groups, and to start the process of lobbying their members of parliament. The legislation is now being discussed in the House of Commons committees and the House of Lords committees. I indicated that I will be carrying out lobbying work with Better Media, and that time is short to express any concerns as part of the process of scrutiny.

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